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Sabres to hike ticket prices an average 8%

Buffalo Sabres fans are going to pay more for the hottest tickets in town -- a moderate increase in season-ticket prices next year and a lot more for playoff tickets this spring.

The team that is selling out HSBC Arena for all 41 home games this season will raise season-ticket prices an average of 8 percent next year, a lower figure than some observers had speculated. But for the first two rounds of this year's playoffs, season-ticket holders will pay an average of about one-third more than their season-ticket rate.

Sabres officials also have added an incentive for season-ticket holders renewing early -- charging them this year's season-ticket rate for the first round of the playoffs.

In unveiling the plan, Sabres managing partner Larry Quinn and other top Sabres officials also revealed that:

They don't expect individual playoff tickets to be available to the general public.

The team likely will come close to breaking even for the regular season. An extended playoff run could lead to a decent operating profit.

The moderate season-ticket increase for next season doesn't mean the Sabres plan to dismantle the nucleus of the team. Instead, the player payroll is expected to rise for next season.

The biggest surprise in the new plan may be that season-ticket prices will increase an average of 7.8 percent next season, with almost all the price-level increases under 10 percent.

Each 100 Level Preferred seat, for example, will cost $53 per game, compared with $49 this season. A 300 Level II seat will increase to $23 from $21.

With a totally sold-out building for the season, some outsiders expected a bigger increase.

"If we increased season-ticket prices by 20 percent, I think we still would sell out for next season," Sabres owner B. Thomas Golisano said. "But I think we would be breaking a covenant we made with our fans, and we're not going to do that."

Sabres officials provided charts showing that next year's season-ticket prices will be lower than the 2003-04 prices, except for the 300 Level seats. That was Golisano's first year with the team, long before the Sabres' recent successes.

"I know we could gouge our season-ticket holders, but that's not what we're going to do," Quinn said.

"We're going to have ups and downs during the ownership of this team," he added. "If we're going to ask people for loyalty when we're trying to build the team, then it would be disingenuous of us to sock it to them when we're riding high."

That's all part of the Sabres' larger business model, creating a loyal season-ticket base with tickets in high demand.

"We'd rather make our business work by having more people pay less than by having fewer people pay more," Quinn said.

The Sabres plan to keep their current season-ticket cap at 14,800 for next season, leaving fewer than 4,000 seats available for individual game sales. The team has a season-ticket waiting list of about 2,100 names.

Announcing next year's season-ticket prices now seems somewhat surprising, in that a long playoff run -- and a possible Stanley Cup championship -- would have allowed the Sabres to increase prices based on the heightened interest.

"When we do this, we do it based on our long-term business model, not on what happens in the next six months," chief operating officer Daniel J. DiPofi said. "Our decision wouldn't change."

The biggest sticker shock will occur at playoff time this year. Those prices for the first two playoff rounds will rise anywhere from 28 to 43 percent over the season-ticket price. Last year, the Sabres kept the first two playoff rounds at the season-ticket prices.

So the 100 Level Preferred seat that went for $49 for a season ticket will rise to $65. And the 300 Level II seat will increase to $30 from $21.

"Given the fact that our season-ticket prices are low, I believe that still makes us the most-attractive playoff ticket in the league," Quinn said. "That's a darn good price for a playoff game."

The Sabres, always looking for ways to help season-ticket sales, will allow season-ticket holders to pay their regular season price for the first round of the playoffs, provided they make a 20 percent deposit on next year's tickets by March 2.

Invoices are expected to be mailed out late this week, said John R. Sinclair, director of ticket operations. Season-ticket holders opting not to buy playoff tickets need to make a deposit for next season by April 13.

Once season-ticket holders buy their playoff tickets, mini-pack holders get their chance. Then, season-ticket holders may buy one additional seat for every seat they have, at much higher prices -- as long as supplies last.

"There's a very good chance that many of the season-ticket holders won't be able to buy additional tickets," Quinn said. Those tickets will be allotted in the order of ticket renewals for next season.

"Although we could have a window sale, I think it's highly unlikely," Quinn said.

Quinn emphasized that the season-ticket hike for next season will have no effect on next year's payroll and roster. "The payroll will go up next year," he said. "We think we can keep the core of the team intact. Nothing we're doing about pricing should determine the makeup of the team next year. They are not related."

The Sabres' payroll jumped from about $29 million to $41 million this season, leading many observers to question whether the team can afford co-captains Chris Drury and Daniel Briere next season.

"Our intent is to keep both," Quinn said. "Obviously, the players have a lot to say about that, but we're not approaching it that we're going to throw one of them to the curb . . . I think they want to remain a part of this, and we want to keep them."

Last year, the Sabres said they made an operating profit of about $4.5 million, helped by the lower payroll and eight home playoff games.

"This year, we think we can get close to breaking even before the playoffs," Quinn said. "I think an extended playoff run obviously makes us profitable."

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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